Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/The war instinct: what to do with it

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume VIII (1862-1863)
The war instinct. What to do with it
by Harriet Martineau


We have heard less and less of “the material tendencies of the age” for some years past, as occasions came round for modern men to show that they are of the same make as their fathers. Without stopping to discuss the relative value of human faculties, desires, and passions, we may look for a moment at a few facts which may show whether there really is the change in men from one age to another which is supposed by persons who denounce their generation as materialistic and degenerate, or extol it as exalted above old barbarisms, and more lofty in its temper and aims than any race or people ever was before. The present state of the world affords pretty plain evidence that war does not cease because the Commercial Period of civilisation has set in; while, in the Military Period, during its whole rise, predominance, and decline, there was as thorough a commercial spirit at work in society as there is at present, though it was comparatively restricted in its exercise.

Ages and periods are short things in comparison with the constitution of Man; and all the faculties of Man work on, from century to century, through every form and fashion of civilisation. Thus, there were apt and eager traffickers (other than Jews) in the most quarrelsome times of the Middle Ages: a peaceable trading class grew up, meek and humble, while aristocracies were engrossed with the Crusades, or with their mutual feuds; till at length the enterprising, and brave, and generous, and ambitious faculties passed into the new pursuit, and found such exercise and scope that the world heard of Merchant-Princes, and saw the military dignity begin to falter and hesitate before that of wealth, when the wealth was obtained by adventure which supposed the acquisition of great and rare knowledge, and the exercise of the bold animal faculties, as well as of the intellect.

In the reverse case which we heard so much of up to ten years ago, there was the same real balance of faculties as that which we now thankfully recognise. Our philosophers and divines were immensely disgusted and angry at the degradation of the people of England, who had forgotten how to fight, and would submit to any treatment rather than endanger their “blood and treasure;” and who invited the world’s contempt and encroachments by the want of spirit and bodily helplessness of the citizens. The Crimean war and the Volunteers have done all that was necessary in the way of answer to such croakings in our case, as the response of the Free States of the American Union and the continuance of the war to this day have sufficed, in reply to the same reproach against the commercial people of the North. The Southerners were, by their own account, a military people, reconciled to no industry beyond that of superintending agricultural operations, and scornfully superior to commercial and manufacturing pursuits. They would rule or withdraw,—confident that the North would not fight, and that a trading people would yield everything for peace. The North, on the other hand, conscious of having yielded too far for the sake of—not peace—but the preservation of the Union, made no difficulty about fighting, when the assault was actually begun, and was confident that the South must soon yield for want of the necessaries and comforts of life.

The world has thus witnessed the spectacle of a military spirit in the North, brave enough to undergo the suffering of the necessary training, and of an unexpected economical ability in the South. Men can manufacture and trade in the Slave States; and men can fight, and grow fond of military adventure in the Free States. The whole set of faculties has existed in both all the while; and they will no doubt be found by-and-by to have improved incalculably by the more complete exercise of their powers; and to have risen in one another’s estimation by the proof afforded of what they can do.

We shall not hear much more in my time of the gross materialism and ignoble spiritlessness of our age. The Italian revolution, and the conflicts and turmoils and alarms which have kept Europe in incessant excitement for the last five years, have silenced the haughty censors of their age, and have turned not a few of the clergy into preachers of war instead of peace. Our generation is now more likely to be scolded for its sympathy with war, and branded as retrograde, than despised for being too pacific.

Some of us have had a secret, if not an open, belief, during our forty years’ peace, that the commercial period was not extinguishing the spirit of Englishmen, and that it would not bear us on into the Millennium without interruption. The strength of the organ of destructiveness,—or, as it would better be called, of antagonism,—in the English brain has hinted itself in some significant way all the time to observers who, like myself, did not wish to see all England mortifying one of the best organs in the human brain, in the course of cultivating and gratifying some others. Field-sports at home, and the glee with which young men (if not old ones) have entered into any possible warfare with poachers, have always shown me what a force of antagonism or destructiveness lay beneath the outward quietness which is the reaction from the bullying manners of the duellists of the last century. But the most curious and amusing spectacle is the emotion of our countrymen,—and, I may add, our countrywomen,—on coming face to face with man’s natural enemies, in remote countries and strange climates. The peculiar relation into which my countrymen are being brought with the wild animals of the world makes this spectacle one of great interest, if we did not look beyond it.

I have seen, without any surprise or overmuch contempt, the fear of almost all animals in which most English children are,—or were till lately,—brought up. I have seen what a drawback it was to the pleasures of a summer retreat at Bolton Abbey, or near Barden Tower at the other end of the valley of the Strid, that the vocation of the neighbourhood is grazing. It really is, to peaceable and unarmed people, a grievance to be able to go nowhere upon the glorious hills around, or in the wild pastures, without being warned as you pass every farmhouse, or cried out to from every eminence, to take care of the bull. It is vexatious when two-thirds up a Westmoreland mountain, to meet somebody who tells you there is a menacing bull in possession of the ridge, or this or that enclosure which you have to pass through. I could understand the paroxysm of terror which caused a maid-servant, in attendance on her mistress, to seize the lady’s arm, and hide behind her from the stare of a cow which looked up from her grazing. I could comprehend how a young lady, though late for dinner, felt compelled to turn round and leave a pasture, and make a long circuit home, because two young horses were running and tossing their manes. But I could not have conceived, without seeing and feeling it, what the emotion is of first coming within view of a brute enemy in a far country;—the emotion which is kindred to that felt by the soldier on the day of his first battle;—the emotion which may remain a singular experience in one’s life, or may grow into that peculiarity which I shall speak of presently.

I was rather surprised at the vigour of my own dislike of mosquitoes when at New Orleans; but I found how mild was that abhorrence when I learned to dread the rattlesnake on the Mississippi. Without finding the voyage up the river tedious, I liked, as the other passengers did, to step ashore at the wooding-places, and peep into the forest, which we could not penetrate beyond a few yards. It was so disagreeable, however, to have to examine every step among the dead wood and tangled creepers for snakes, and to be warned away from the woodpile lest some treacherous creature should wriggle out, that, after having sighted two or three abominable reptiles of one branch or another of the snake tribe, I grew less eager about visiting the shore, just for the sake of saying I had been in this or that state, or of gathering an armful of the splendid honeysuckle of the forest, or yellow jasmine, or dogwood, or crow-poison.

It was with a different kind of interest that I first saw real wild beasts roaming at pleasure. A small herd of buffalo were the very first, I think: but they were not unused to the sight of men. They were not tamed; that was impossible; and their cruel eyes, their heavy gait, and the weight of their forepart, which looked as if framed expressly to crush an enemy, caused a wonderful thrill of hostility, unlike anything I had felt before. I could fancy at once the attraction of hunting these ugly, powerful, malignant-looking creatures. Very different was my next accost of the wild part of creation. I was in a waggon crossing an expanse of open country in the western States, when a tawny dog, as I supposed, crossed the track, some distance before us, at a slow trot, carrying its head low, and its tail between its legs. It was a prairie-wolf; and before we could get a nearer view, it had disappeared behind some rise in the ground. The next encounter was more impressive. I was in a waggon on the prairie with a party of friends later at night than was prudent. The driver and other natives tried the effect upon a stranger of stories of travellers who had lost themselves on this prairie, and gone round and round for a few days and nights without seeing a single habitation. I did not expect this fate; but it seemed possible that we might be out all night, with overtired horses in the waggon. Moreover, we could not stop, or walk, if we wished it; for the water stood in the grass over the whole prairie, as far as we could see, to the depth of one or two feet. If there had been any track, the water would have concealed it. It was a cloudy night, no star visible, and so gloomy that I should have said, but for experience to the contrary, that we could see nothing but the outline of one another’s heads against the sky. It was slow and wearisome,—the splash of the horses’ feet, and the fizzing of the wheels through the water. To keep ourselves awake, we discussed some public men and measures; when, as I chanced to look down on my side of the waggon, I saw something moving,—a dark creature, trotting slowly at our pace. It was a bear; and a good long view I had of him, till he began to increase his distance, and then disappeared in the darkness. It was most unlikely that he or another should join us again; but I could not help watching for the chance till the rise of some yellow points of light on our horizon showed that we were not to wander all night on the prairie, but were nearing our resting-place.

There were no hunting instincts awakened by the other natural enemies which have come in my way. A comrade and I were tempted one hot day to bathe in the most alluring place imaginable, on the shores of the Red Sea, far away from native dwellings or travellers’ ordinary routes. We had had a general warning against bathing in that sea, on account of sharks; but here the water was so shallow, and there were such slopes and shelves of rock under the clear green water, that we could not imagine any shark venturing into something so like a bath for us and a trap for him. Some cries and shouts, however, disturbed our luxury, as we lay on smooth rocks under water. Some of our Arabs had seen our clothes under a palm clump on the shore, and began to look about for us. They were sorely distressed that they could not get us out instantly. We did not half believe them, and finished our bath; but we found afterwards that they were right enough, that the danger was real, so that nobody, native or foreigner, ever bathes along that reach of the shore. Perhaps we should have done differently if we had known the sensation of seeing a shark, when turned back downwards, ready to seize its prey. We are told that the aspect of the creature is dreadful beyond comparison or description; but my companion and I had never seen a shark, nor have we yet, though we made bold to bathe wherever we pleased, all the way up to Akaba, and when we met the sea again on the coast of Syria.

On the Nile we were of course on the look-out for crocodiles; and we saw plenty; but they did no harm before our eyes. I do not think I could run the risks that we witnessed every day, if I had been such a swimmer as every native is. Not only in the lower part of the river, where no crocodiles come now, but where they so abound that their detestable flat heads and loathsome whitish bellies and stiff tails may be seen on almost every sandspit, men and boys go careering down the stream on a log, or swim slowly across on a bundle of reeds, or down in the water so that only their heads and their arms, going like the sails of a windmill, are seen. I could not, if ever so much at home in the water, have launched out into so broad a river, so full of crocodiles. They do not seem to be quite so mischievous as the Indian alligators; but there are accidents enough happening there, from time to time, to make it natural that Englishmen in Upper Egypt shoot a good deal more than they bathe. It is amusing to see the eagerness of my countrymen to shoot a crocodile, the vexation of those who have not carried suitable ball, and the rivalship between competing parties. From what I heard, and from the triumph I witnessed in one party, and the low spirits of another at that triumph, I should suppose the shooting of a crocodile to be a somewhat rare achievement. It is, indeed, no easy matter to get an aim at the vulnerable part, under the forearm.

In those regions, I think, there was besides only the howling of the jackals at night to remind us of wild beasts. We were kept in mind of the wonderful instinct of natural antipathy by the scorpions we had to beware of in the desert. When the tent was pitched, the dragoman entered, tongs in hand, and turned over every stone within the enclosure. We watched the process, and when one scorpion was found, or possibly two, we were surprised to observe how our antipathy grew with every one we looked at, as it writhed its disgusting tail in the tongs.

It is very striking to observe, in travelling from one quarter of the world to another, how all nations take for granted that Englishmen can cope with their natural enemies, and will be willing to do so. The Germans were perhaps the foremost huntsmen in old times. The Americans show, by what they do in the Western States, how strong the instinct is in them, though it does not appear in the seabord States, or in those of their people whom we see on their travels. To see it, we must go to them, and watch an ambush for a panther in some new clearing, or an onset on a herd of buffalo, or an expedition against a mischievous bear. I will say nothing of the fiercer instinct which is called into play by any provocation to Indian hunting. That phase of human passion is too fearful to be lightly touched. As for other game, Americans in the Far West are very like Englishmen at the Pole, when bears come prowling round their ship at night, or whalers, when the spout is seen coming nearer over the heaving sea; but we see no more of the spirit of sport, in its grave sense of warfare with the wild enemies of man, in the ordinary run of travelled Americans, than in our own cockney countrymen who visit the Rhine in autumn.

When these natural enemies become too mischievous for endurance, it is the English who are petitioned to afford deliverance. At least, this is the case in southern countries. There has been plenty of astonishment in Norway, Sweden, and Iceland at the adventurous character of Englishmen; and their ardour in the pursuit of glaciers and capercailzie, of geysers and reindeer, of Laps and salmon, has fired the curiosity of the people: but those people have themselves been always adequate to cope with their own bears. An Englishman there is admitted to a bear-hunting expedition as receiving rather than conferring a favour. His behaviour in the frost, his gait in snow-shoes, his pluck when it comes to facing the bear, and his pertinacity when it is a brute-family whose quarters are broken up, are all appreciated by Scandinavian comrades; but only a weak settlement of peasants, infested by a strong party of bears, would ask a foreigner’s aid in dealing with the enemy. It is far otherwise in tropical countries.

In reading of South African sporting, or of missionary travel, one is pretty sure to come upon some narrative of a dreadful pair of lions which come prowling about a village at night, carrying away one valuable ox or horse after another, and killing the people, till nobody ventures out, and the village is in despair. Then, if an Englishman is heard of, anywhere within the reach of rumour, a deputation waits on him to implore him to come and take these lions in hand. It seems as if success always followed. Perhaps it does; or if not, the failure may be set down among the accidents of the journey. Whatever the special ability of the Englishman may be (which seems to be merely a matter of sufficient or insufficient practice), there is evidently a full faith in the Englishman’s courage and coolness in all native minds, wherever his services are invoked.

In Ceylon, the British gun and its sporting owner are an institution, raised up in opposition to the natural curse of the wild elephants. When the peasants hear the crash in the jungle at nightfall, and feel the tread which shakes the ground, they know what is coming. In the morning the fences are broken down, the crops are trampled, the young trees are snapt off or uprooted. There is a prospect of ruin within a wide circuit, unless active measures are speedily taken against the enemy.

True sportsmen in Ceylon think such a case as this as much a matter of course, as the rat hunts in the barn at home, in their school days. They soon cure the elephant, or the pair or family of elephants, of doing mischief; and while they are about it, they may perhaps have to tell, on going back to business, that they have “bagged” seven, or nine, or eleven elephants. They consider it “quite a simple thing,” when once in practice. There is a spot behind the ear through which the small brain of the animal is most easily reached; and the sportsman who knows how to aim can make sure of his “bag” with scarcely more risk and trouble than our squires encounter on the 1st of September. The secret of the case once known, the adepts make themselves merry with the mistakes of the unskilled; as happened when two Englishmen in Ceylon, returning from making prey of (I think) twenty-three elephants, found in their newspapers from home the account of the slaying of poor Chuny, the mad elephant at Exeter Change. While two gentlemen had quietly “bagged” twenty-three elephants, without any help or public notice, the one elephant in London had had pounds upon pounds of poison,—large draughts of prussic acid making him only somewhat uncomfortable for a little time,—and at last, after many hours of danger to the public, the poor animal was fired at by a line of soldiers, and received 120 balls before he died. The gentlemen remarked that it was a pity that somebody at Exeter Change did not know of the thin space behind the ear, and may be excused for laughing at the array of soldiers. But it should always be remembered that a training,—a severe and perilous training,—has to be gone through before our sportsmen can attain the ease and comparative security which enable them at last to take the high ground they hold. What concerns us here is the strong instinct of antagonism and wild warfare which is requisite to carry a man, first into such a training, and then through it.

We are reminded of this very painfully every few months by the stories which come over from India of some fine young officer, or some married man, whose life is precious, having been terribly injured, or killed, by a tiger. I have just been reading an account of two such accidents which have happened this spring. In the one case three Englishmen went out alone, to deal with a tiger which had killed a bullock. One of them, Major Brownlow, of the Saharampore Canals, is severely mauled, the tiger having sprung on him after his shot had missed. He owes his life to the vigour with which one of his comrades beat the creature about the head, inducing it to retreat; for they missed killing it after all. The other case is worse. An engineer of the public works at Roorkee, Mr. Harris, a man with a wife and four children, went forth against a tiger on foot, because he had once shot a tiger in that way. A mounted comrade could not get his elephant to approach: and the attendants could do nothing to separate the beast from its prey. The poor fellow was cruelly torn and crunched, and died in a few hours, after a leg had been amputated.

Such a catastrophe seems rather to send more men out into the wilderness, than to keep them out of danger. I observe that there are appeals made now to English sportsmen to rid two districts of their plague of tigers; and I have no doubt the appeal will be answered.

All security of living seems gone at Singapore, from a disagreeable habit which the tigers have got of swimming over from the mainland. Scores of people are destroyed every year: and labourers outside the town are apt to disappear, and be seen no more, unless in the shape of a few bones, with some remains of clothing, in the jungle. Singapore asks whether Englishmen, who will go anywhere for sport, will not go there, and revel in the abundance of tigers? The same question is hinted in regard to the Sonderbunds,—the low, swampy lands in the delta of the Ganges, where improvement is now penetrating in the shape of roads, and a new or enlarged port by which a new branch of the Hooghly will be brought into prominence. Those lands have a fertility without limit; and the natives can live there. They might send us cotton, of the true Sea-island quality, to any amount; and this is only one of many products which would be enormously profitable to both countries. But the Sonderbunds are like the very home of the tigers; and they make it a real difficulty to utilise the district. It is not to be supposed that Englishmen will go into such a malarious region, unless it can be shown to be more healthy than it now appears; but the hint shows what is thought of our tendencies and tastes: and I have a strong impression that not a few of my countrymen, in India and at home, are silently indulging in dreams of the delights of delivering Singapore and the Sonderbunds of their special curse, by the genial exercise of the hunt. If any two or three,—possibly if one were to offer, so as to save others from looking ridiculous, romantic, and so forth, there would, I doubt not, be dozens more eager to share the venture. While I write, Indian newspapers come in with paragraphs which tell of Englishmen having gone out against a tiger here, and wild elephant there, which have come after livestock and succulent crops; and of a leopard having scared some ladies by rushing into their presence, when wanting a young cow as a prey. It is plain that such tidings are particularly pleasant to Englishmen within reach of the spot.

In our cooler quarter of the world, we have not leopards, and tigers, and elephants to complain of; but we can direct our energies against more mischievous creatures than hares and pheasants, or even the red deer of the Highlands. The Italians do not want any help from us while they have a sporting king of their own. We saw, the other day, how Victor Emmanuel relieved a poor peasant of the enemy of his hen roost, and refused the fee that was offered; and how he rejoined his hunting staff with the fox dangling over his shoulder; and how appalled his employer was on discovering who it was that he had been making so free with. But there are worse marauders than foxes in countries so near us as France.

We have seen how the Duke of Beaufort’s pack of hounds was invoked to rid a district of Poitou of wolves. The news thrilled many a heart among us, no doubt,—so terrible are the wolf stories we used to hear in our childhood;—the story of the peasant girl who saved her little brother from a pack of wolves by putting him into the oven, and was torn to pieces the moment after;—and the cowardly mother in Norway, who, when her sledge was followed by wolves, flung her children to the pack, one after another, to give her time to escape; and who escaped at last,—with nothing left to live for,—and could never hold up her head again, under the contempt and pity of all who knew her. We were proud for the Duke of Beaufort that he should be the good knight to rid Poitou of these fearful enemies of children, and sheep, and horses, and cattle, that the people might never again have such a winter as the last to dread.

The experiment has not, so far, been as successful as was hoped. English dogs seem not to have so sure and lively an instinct of combativeness as English men; and the hounds looked complacently or indifferently on the wolves till they were roused and instructed by the dogs of the neighbourhood. They will do very well next year, for their passion was awakened; and if it had been weather for the scent to lie, they would have made a good beginning of their work. As it was, they learned what a wolf was, and how to pull him down.

If they had learned less, the expedition would have been worth while; for French men learned a lesson, as well as English dogs. The French notion of “sport” is—plenty of noise and bustle, and as much uproar as possible, with horns, and shouts, and hurry-scurry. With infinite surprise the spectators saw the business like way in which our countrymen went to work,—anxious about the scent alone, and careful not to distract the dogs’ attention from it. The people had the sense to see the superior promise of the quiet method,—its greater profit and dignity. English solidity asserted itself as usual; and it did no hurt to our reputation,—so well aware as the spectators were of the passion for sport which is a part of English nature.

One wonders whether it struck them that when a nation does not prostitute its war-instinct to the conquest of a remote, or inferior, or unwarlike people, it is no undignified use to make of that instinct to direct it against the natural enemies of Man. May it never be worse employed!

From the Mountain.